By Ryan Harrison on May 26, 2020
“We look a bit like aliens,” says Dr Andreas Schipper as he talks briefly between shifts on the COVID-19 ward at Dijklander Hospital, in the town of Hoorn, around 50 kilometres north of Amsterdam.
The anaesthesiologist and his team of eight specialists are on the front line in the struggle to save lives, wearing unusual personal protective equipment: full-face snorkelling masks.
He describes the scene on the hospital’s intensive care unit in early May, where patients who survive COVID-19 emerge after weeks on the ward: “It’s pretty scary for them. We pin pictures of ourselves on our uniforms so they can see who we are – a doctor, just a normal person.”
Medical staff such as Schipper are finding inventive ways to supplement standard equipment to keep themselves and their patients safe when treating the most seriously ill from the virus. He is wearing an ordinary snorkelling mask that has been transformed into an emergency ventilation mask using a valve produced by a 3D printer.
His mask is fitted with a regular portable industrial ventilator and air pump – similar to those that welders, painters and asbestos removers use. The pumps push out a constant flow of air to prevent the virus entering the mask.
Teams of anaesthesiologists, universities and Shell, have developed the equipment, which hospitals then certified.
Delft University of Technology created the new valves that connect the mask to its air source. The valves were then produced on 3D printers at Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam by senior engineer Joost Kroon and his team. The process uses a powerful laser beam to fuse powdered metal and make instruments, layer by layer, in microscopic slices of around just 0.03 millimetres each.
Designs for the mask valve are open-source and published on thingiverse.com, which means others can freely copy them to support health-care professionals worldwide.
3D printing is offering a rapid response to the day-to-day needs of medical staff, if on a small scale. It is helping the Netherlands meet demand for medical equipment and prepare for potential future waves of the infection. COVID-19 cases in the country have been falling and by mid-May they reached their lowest levels in two months, according to public health agency figures.
Health workers in Amsterdam are also using Shell 3D-printed parts in ventilators, the machines that take over breathing when the disease has caused a patient’s lungs to fail.
Intensive care doctors at the Amsterdam University Medical Center asked Sjoerd te Slaa, a medical technology expert, to find a way of using 3D printing to bring back old ventilators into front-line use.
Te Slaa, who designs 3D-printed medical equipment such as jigs to guide surgeons during operations, says four of the hospital’s ventilators were lying dormant while they waited for valves that were out of stock.
He used a 3D scanner on worn-out valves to capture vital information to arrive at the product design specification, a process known as reverse engineering. After collaborating at length on designs with Kroon, Te Slaa sent the file to the Shell 3D printer lab.
“The parts were delivered the next day. That’s enormously fast. From me receiving the request to doctors getting the ventilators up and running took about six days,” says Te Slaa.
Shell has so far provided around 1,500 3D-printed parts for medical equipment used in the treatment of COVID-19.
“We are usually 3D printing parts for production sites,” says Kroon. “Now our 3D-printed parts are having an immediate impact on helping medical professionals saving lives.”
How else are Shell 3D printers helping?
- The Netherlands: Shell 3D-printed around 35,000 clips for masks as part of a crowd-sourcing initiative.
- USA: The Shell Technology Centre Houston is working on producing headband holders for face shields or replaceable masks.
- UK: Shell has joined forces with engineering, 3D printing and injection-moulding experts from across Europe to deliver around 2,500 reusable face visors to the NHS Grampian Trust in Aberdeen.
- UK: Shell has also donated around 6,500 3D printed face visors to hospitals including St. Thomas’ in London.
- Canada: Shell has produced 2,700 reusable face shields using a 3D printer at Shell Scotford, a chemical and refining complex.